The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She was Gambia’s star goalkeeper. But she died as yet another drowned migrant in the Mediterranean.

Around 4,000 people have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean this year trying to get to Europe, the highest number in recorded history.

But few of them get obituaries. Often their deaths remain unconfirmed, with even their families lacking information.

This week, the Gambian national soccer federation said that one of its prominent players was apparently among the victims. Fatim Jawara, the goalkeeper on the women's national team, drowned when her boat went down off the coast of Libya last month, the federation said, according to news reports. She was believed to be 19.

That a star athlete would risk her life to board a smuggler's boat speaks volumes about Africa's migrant crisis. While the world has focused on refugees fleeing Syria, tens of thousands of Africans have tried to escape poverty and conflict for better lives in Europe.

Gambia, one of Africa's smallest nations, with about 2 million inhabitants, has produced a disproportionate number of those migrants. Gambians are among the top 10 nationalities of migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean Sea for Europe, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

“We are grieving at the moment as this is a great loss to the national soccer team and the nation,” the president of the Gambian soccer federation, Lamin Kaba Bajo, told the Agence France-Presse news agency. “She will be remembered for saving a penalty kick in a friendly encounter involving the national soccer team and the Glasgow Girls from Scotland.”

The Associated Press quoted a spokesman for the soccer federation, Bakary B. Baldeh, as saying that the young woman died in Libyan waters and “must have been buried” in that country.

So far, no specifics of Jawara's decision to migrate have been reported. In perhaps one telling detail, a colleague told the BBC that the members of a local team that she had played on — the Red Scorpions — were not paid salaries.

Gambia's president, Yahya Jammeh, seized power in a coup in 1994. He has since jailed members of the political opposition and made a number of widely ridiculed declarations — including saying that AIDS could be cured with herbs.

But what drives so many young Gambians to migrate is the lack of opportunity in a country that has grown slower than many of its neighbors. A huge portion of the population scrapes by as subsistence farmers, even as they now swipe through pictures of Europe's glittering lights on the Facebook posts of friends who have migrated.

Jammeh has argued fruitlessly that “true Muslims” would encourage their children to remain in Gambia.

Read more:

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